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The Pope's First Big "No"

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 2:23 PM Comments (46)

One of my children heard me discussing the upcoming Synod on the Family currently in preparation for October. She asked me, "Dad, what is a synod?"

"Well honey, a synod is a gathering of bishops in Rome with the Pope where they discuss certain issues in the Church with many possible solutions to which the Pope ultimately must say NO."

Despite the headline making reformation of the Curia now under discussion in Rome, the Pope's first big challenge will be the Synod on the family. It is not that the reformation of the Curia is not important, but that it is so much inside baseball. Whatever the decisions there, they will be difficult to decipher for most folks, particularly the financial elements.

What all the regular Joes and Marys are looking to, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, is the Synod on the Family. Even six months out, expectations are being set, questions and solutions are being framed, and hopes are being raised. Hopes, I hope will be dashed.

Chief among the topics to be discussed there is how to deal with the 'thorny' issue of divorced and remarried Catholic not being admitted to Communion. I say 'thorny' not because I think the teaching on this restriction is doctrinally debatable, but that doesn't stop unhappy people in and out of the Church from debating it or worse. See German Episcopal Conference.

It seems clear that the direct readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion is a non-starter. As confirmed by "Archbishop Müller reiterates that a Christian marriage is indissoluble and that this is not simply a pastoral question, but a doctrinal issue that involves the Church’s theological understanding of the sacrament of marriage."

Although many people are urging the Pope to be 'generous' in this matter, it is not generous to all those unrepentantly engaging in adultery to receive the sacrament unworthily, further compounding the grave matter.

Being "generous" in the eyes of the world is easy, except if you are the ultimate decision maker and have the Holy Spirit breathing down your neck.  For this reason I fully expect the Pope to say No to any modification in this regard.

What I don't know is how the Pope will say No.  What I hope for is an unequivocal statement in this matter that it simply cannot be and will never be changed.  It is best not to let these discussions remain, particularly discussions that anticipate future change. Anything even remotely equivocal will just continue to encourage dissent and false hope.  I trust the Pope understands this.

So while direct readmission may not be in the cards, there are other related things on the table that have the potential to be equally troubling for the Church and marriage.

Because many understand that readmission is unlikely, focus is on making modifications to the annulment process to make it much easier to obtain an annulment.  I am all for streamlining process but vehemently opposed to lowering the bar for evidence that a sacramental marriage never took place.

John Allen Jr. reported the G8 council of Papal advisers is discussing this topic this week. Other related discussions contemplate things like a domineering mother "mamma-ism" as potentially a reason to determine that a sacramental marriage never took place.

There are real dangers here for the Pope, the Church, and marriage.  On the one hand, if the Pope allows for no change to the principle or the process, many heads will explode both within and without.  Much of the false hope generated by the press will be dashed in an instant.  That may be good or bad in the long run, but I suspect that the Synod and the Pope will generally view this outcome as undesirable. So I suspect some changes will be made.

But this is tricky business.  By amending the annulment process even a little or by providing vague instruction to be more 'pastoral,' you run serious risks that progressive bishops' conferences will make wholesale changes to the process 'in the spirit of the synod" that will only serve to undermine marriage and the Church. If that were to happen, if "Catholic divorces" became perfunctory, it would do more to damage the institution of marriage than the entire 'gay-marriage' movement in my estimation.

That is not to say that the process is perfect, by no means.  But any modifications should be targeted, explicit, and vehemently enforced.

But even in this latter case, any 'Yes' must be accompanied with copious amounts of 'No.'  Yet even with that, if the clergy is not on board, they can do tremendous damage.  We have seen the dramatic and disastrous effects of clergy non-compliance even in the wake of the unequivocal 'No' to artificial contraception by Pope Paul VI.  Without additional enforced measures to teach and discipline clergy in rhetorical or practical dissent, even the 'no' can be effectively meaningless.

Navigating this perilous process is the biggest challenge that the Pope faces, perhaps in his whole pontificate.  He desperately needs our prayers in this time.

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About Pat Archbold

Pat Archbold
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Patrick Archbold is co-founder of Creative Minority Report, a Catholic website that puts a refreshing spin on the intersection of religion, culture, and politics. When not writing, Patrick is director of information technology at a large international logistics company. Patrick, his wife Terri, and their five children reside in Long Island, N.Y.